Sharon Liese nurses a tall iced chai latte at a Johnson County coffee shop this January afternoon. The Overland Park–based docu-reality filmmaker and executive producer is enjoying a short break from an intense schedule of pitching and producing shows on the East and West coasts for major cable networks such as WEtv, MTV, Lifetime and Discovery.
“I love what I do and don’t mind the long hours,” says Liese. “But there’s no place like home.”
Liese is back in Overland Park following four hectic months shuttling between New Orleans and Los Angeles as part of the production team for a project to air this year on the Oprah Winfrey Network. That was interspersed with developing storylines and sizzle reels for potential shows and editing and wrapping “High School Confidential 2,” a provocative and revealing four-year series filmed in Chicago for WEtv.
This is Liese’s second installment of the acclaimed and ambitious 2008 series that followed 12 of her daughter Justine’s contemporaries through their Blue Valley Northwest High School careers.
Real life inspired the show. Liese was then a single mother, scouring libraries and the Internet for reference material on parenting a teen through high school.
“There wasn’t much addressing the entire high school journey,” she says.
Not satisfied, Liese decided to document the high-school experience up-close and personal. The result was a collection of teenage life on film with emotionally charged first-person accounts and in-the-moment footage. The 2008 premiere of “High School Confidential” attracted 1.3 million viewers and broke WEtv ratings records.
Just as Liese captured hundreds of hours of the Kansas students’ real-life angst, happiness, challenges, disappointments and victories, she has followed 10 students at Chicago’s Von Steuben High School in Chicago since 2008.
“The first season of ‘High School Confidential’ contained riveting first-person accounts,” says Liese. “This second season combines eye-opening vérité footage of raw, authentic and sometimes shocking events with compelling interviews.”
The show can be streamed on iTunes.
Liese says similarities between the suburban Kansas and Chicago students are simple. “It’s tough for girls to grow up today no matter where they live,” says Liese, who spent her childhood in upstate New York’s Saratoga Springs. “They face many identical internal pressures and mature situations.”
Major differences between Blue Valley Northwest and the grittier, working-class locale of Von Steuben include external economic pressures and neighborhood violence — even in some of the featured students’ homes.
“One girl in the series doesn’t graduate,” says Liese. “I didn’t capture that particular risk in the first installment with the Blue Valley students, but that’s not a reflection on either school district.”
Reflecting on how the series ultimately empowers girls, Liese believes “High School Confidential” fosters understanding by encouraging girls to address tough topics with parents in a non-threatening way.
“Often a TV storyline allows discussion of more intimate situations,” she says. “For example, rather than randomly broaching tough topics, a mom can ask her daughter while watching a show, ‘How would you handle that?’ ”
In addition to developing pilots for MTV, Liese created and executive produced “Hookers: Saved on the Strip” for Discovery ID. She was recently a consulting producer on Lifetime’s “The Week the Women Went.”
Liese says the experience of filming the first “High School Confidential” in Johnson County was priceless and hopes to successfully pitch another docu-reality series set here.
“I’m always looking for great ideas and Kansas City is terrific as a character itself,” she says. “I continue to seek development opportunities here.”